'Sexy Health Carnival' among ideas to engage Aboriginal youth

An event called a 'sexy health carnival' will bring out a lot more Indigenous youth than something called an HIV/AIDS workshop, and the Native Youth Sexual Health Network says it can communicate the same message.

Native Youth Sexual Health Network gives adults a lesson in healthy living

Alexa Lesperance (l) and Krysta Williams, both with the Native Youth Sexual Health Network, say youth need to lead the change in First Nations communities. (Jody Porter/CBC)

An event called a 'sexy health carnival' will bring out a lot more Indigenous youth than something called an HIV/AIDS workshop, and the Native Youth Sexual Health Network says it can deliver the same message.

It's one of the lessons the organization brought to an Aboriginal healing and wellness strategy conference in Thunder Bay on Wednesday.

Youth facilitator Alexa Lesperance, 20, talked to wellness workers about the event she created in her home community of Naotkamegwanning (Whitefish Bay) First Nation in Treaty 3 territory.

"Something we created is the sexy health carnival, which is really awesome," Lesperance said. "My family helped me create it. It's a series of booths and games and fun activities and accessible ways for people to learn about their bodies, to learn about things that are happening in community."

Youth in Naotkamegwanning are also very much interested in traditional teachings, Lesperance said, especially in grounding their Anishinaabe identity through participation in ceremony.

Rites of passage

"Something we're slowly starting to do is restoring rites of passage and specifically the passage from young adult to an adult so that specific puberty transition," she said. "So we're working to gather the knowledge in our communities and then slowly implementing that so it's going back to our traditions."

One participant at the Thunder Bay conference asked why it was so hard to get young people to listen to parents and elders. 

"That inter-generational learning is really important and it only works when young people are part of the process...from the beginning, and not at the end," Lesperance said. "'Like oh, we made this really awesome thing and now we want young people to come to it' and then no one shows up and you're like 'why did no one show up?'''

"It's really important that I sit down and I learn from my kookum [grandmother] about medicines and the land," she added. "That's very important, but I feel like I can't be part of that process unless I'm being talked with, and not being talked to."

That kind of youth-driven quest for healthier ways of being is at the heart of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network, said advocacy and outreach co-ordinator Krysta Williams.

"When young people are the driving force behind initiatives and actually get to direct and say 'this is what I want to see happen' and adults actually support that vision and make it happen, that's when we see a lot of success," Williams said.

However, Williams said often attitudes need to shift "so that young people aren't the problem, but we're active in naming what the solutions are that we need to see in our communities."